It was the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup it was hosting, one given virtually no shot to get out of group play.
Yet Russia did just that, advancing to the final 16 of for the first time since it became an independent country.
It had no shot to win there, though, not against Spain, the 10th-best team in the world and the tournament champion in 2010.
Yet Russia did just that, with coach Stanislav Cherchesov devising a brilliant defensive game plan that took the match to penalty kicks, where his team won.
So when time and reality finally caught up with Russia in the quarterfinals Saturday in Sochi, the team’s elimination brought feelings of both sadness and joy. Sadness because losing to Croatia on penalty kicks after fighting for 120 minutes to a 2-2 draw means Russia’s World Cup is over.
But joy because the team’s run lasted far longer than anyone expected and created more memories than anyone had expected.
That’s why tables and even barstools in Moscow’s pubs and restaurants were booked days in advance of Saturday’s game. And why large screens were set up in the streets so fans outside could watch the game.
Police maintained a distance as the crowd cheered, drank beer and chanted. Similar scenes played out all across the country, where Russia’s loss was seen as a win.
“We’re going to celebrate. We are really proud of our boys,” said Vasilisa Ivanova, 19, who hoisted a beer to Russia’s performance outside a bar not far from the Bolshoi Theater.
“The people who came to Russia now see that we aren’t crap like they were told before,” she said.
Added Vladic Manativ, 24, a student in Moscow: “We’re disappointed, of course, but we’re glad for what we’ve got. We’re going home, but we’re not sad. We did well, considering no one thought we’d get even this far.”
And Russia didn’t go down easy, rallying from a one-goal deficit with five minutes left in extra time to force the penalty-kick shootout.
But Croatia’s Andrej Kramaric quieted things nine minutes later, heading in a Mario Mandzukic cross from the edge of the six-yard box.
Neither team scored in the second half before Croatia took its only lead of the game on Domagoj Vida’s one-hop header through a pair of defenders in the 101st minute. Russia refused to quit though, tying the game when Mario Fernandes nodded home a cross from Alan Dzagoev at the back post with five minutes left.
It might have been the biggest goal in Russian soccer history and it was scored by a player who was born in Brazil and made his first international appearance with the Selecao. After playing four years in the Russian Premier League, Fernandes applied for Russian citizenship and made his debut for Russia’s national team in 2016.
Now this Brazilian-Russian — whose new country lasted a day longer in the World Cup than the old one did — had sent both Russia and Croatia to penalty kicks for a second consecutive game.
And that’s where the magic ended.
With the shootout even through two rounds, Fernandes stepped up with a chance to give Russia the lead — only to shoot wide wide. Croatia wouldn’t miss again, eventually eliminating the World Cup hosts when Ivan Rakitic converted his penalty, sending Croatia back to the semifinals for the first time since its World Cup debut in 1998.
In Moscow, the bars went silent — but only for a moment. Fans then began a new chant, calling out “molotsi”, the Russian word for “good job.” Near Nikolskaya Street, which juts out of Red Square, and other central points in the Russian capital, cars flying the country’s tricolor flag drove by, honking their horns and blaring pop music.
President Vladimir Putin watched Saturday’s game on TV, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, then called Cherchesov.
“He congratulated us on a very good game,” said the coach, who lost just one of his five games in the World Cup after losing nine of his first 20 with the national team. “He said what we showed on the field was great.”
Meanwhile Croatia, which played 120 minutes before eliminating Denmark on penalty kicks in the round of 16, advances as only the second team to win consecutive shootouts in a World Cup. It will face England in the semifinals Wednesday.
“It wasn’t a beautiful game, but it was a battle,” said Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic, who, like many fans, was in tears afterward. “We were lucky. I was concentrating throughout the match, but after that penalty it came bursting out of me.”
Baxter reported from St. Petersburg and Ayres from Moscow.